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Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman September 25, 2012

NRA attacks Bill Nelson's vote on a gun ban

A National Rifle Association website fires several shots at U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson’s voting record. The NRA has given an "F" to Nelson and an "A" to his opponent U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV, R-Fort Myers.

One of the attacks on the website says: "Bill Nelson voted for a ban on millions of commonly owned firearms, which included many popular hunting and target rifles."

In this fact-check, we wanted to explore if the NRA accurately described Nelson’s vote on a gun ban. The attack relates to a 2004 vote Nelson took in favor of extending the assault weapons ban of 1994. The vote to extend it came in the form of an amendment that passed the Senate 52-47 on March 2, 2004.

The amendment was to a bill to prohibit civil lawsuits from being brought against gun manufacturers and distributors for damages from misuse of firearms. The overall bill overwhelmingly was defeated 8-90 with Nelson voting "no" in the majority -- so that meant the effort to extend the ban also failed.

But did the assault weapons ban that Nelson wanted extend to millions of commonly owned firearms, including those used by hunters?

Clinton signed assault weapons ban in 1994

The original assault weapons ban of 1994 prohibited the manufacture or possession of semiautomatic assault weapons and banned guns that had two listed military-style features. The law only applied to newly manufactured weapons, grandfathering in millions of guns.

The bill also contained a list of more than 600 hunting or sporting shotguns or rifles that remained legal.

The law expired in 2004 after attempts in Congress to renew it failed. The Violence Policy Center warned that simply renewing the ban wouldn’t be enough, because manufacturers found ways around the law by making some cosmetic changes to create "after-ban" models.

The NRA declined our request to provide documentation to support their claim that the law resulted in a ban on millions of commonly owned firearms including popular hunting firearms.

But the NRA did provide some documentation to PolitiFact Wisconsin that fact-checked an NRA radio ad attacking Democrat Tom Barrett, who ultimately lost his recall challenge against Republican Gov. Scott Walker. The NRA said when Barrett was in Congress, he "voted to ban 15 different kinds of guns, even a lot of common deer rifles." PolitiFact Wisconsin ruled that claim Mostly False.

The NRA cited newspaper and magazine articles from the late 1980s and early 1990s. The articles showed that some deer hunters used weapons targeted by the ban, but the articles were largely anecdotal and deer hunting experts said the banned weapons were not commonly used for deer hunting when the ban became law in 1994.

ATF data and experts on the ban

Data from the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms about the number of guns manufactured in the U.S showed a drop during the lifetime of the ban from about 5.1 million in 1994 to 3.1 million in 2004. (Years after the ban expired, it soared to about 5.5 million in 2010.)

But the ATF doesn’t have categories for guns by their intended use (for hunting versus crime, for example) but instead shows it by pistols, revolvers, rifles, shotguns and a smaller category for miscellaneous. During the ban the number of manufactured pistols, revolvers and shotguns dropped considerably while the number of rifles increased slightly.

The other research we found focused on the impact on crime or the availability of assault weapons -- not about the impact for hunters.

We interviewed experts about the assault weapons ban including Daniel Vice, an attorney at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and Kristen Rand, Legislative Director for the Violence Policy Center -- two groups that fight gun violence and are often on the opposite side of the NRA. (When the assault ban came up for renewal, the Brady Center supported continuing it, while the VPC argued that the ban was flawed and didn’t go far enough.)

We also interviewed Christopher S. Koper, an associate professor at George Mason University. All three of our experts disagreed with the NRA’s claim.

Since Nelson’s 2004 vote was simply to extend the ban, it couldn’t have banned "millions of commonly owned firearms" as the NRA claimed, Vice said in an email. The 1994 ban "only banned the sale or possession of newly manufactured guns," not guns already owned by people.

Also, the ban specifically exempted hundreds of hunting weapons by name, Vice said.

Koper, the professor who wrote a report about the ban for the DOJ, said that the NRA’s claim is misleading. The purpose of the ban was to restrict weapons with multiple military-style features which were less appropriate for hunting purposes. And the list of hundreds of firearms that were exempted, "were deemed to be more appropriate for hunting." Also, gun manufacturers continued to make weapons very similar to the banned weapons by removing some or all of the military-style features, allowing sport shooters to get similar substitutes in many cases.

Nelson’s response

Nelson has long supported a ban on assault weapons, including while in Congress in the 1980s. In 1990, when he was running for governor, Nelson made his call for a state assault weapons ban a focus of his campaign even as he said he still supported gun rights.

"I'm for the constitutional right to bear arms," Nelson said then. "I'm a hunter and so is my son."

But Nelson said youngsters were taking submachine guns to school, and Colombian drug lords were buying their weapons in Florida.

At campaign stops in 1990, Nelson waved an AK-47 over his head and said that a campaign aide was able to buy buy an AK-47 semiautomatic rifle in less than 10 minutes at a Miami gun store.

A spokesman for Nelson’s Senate office, Bryan Gulley, cited some more recent examples of Nelson’s pro-gun votes: He voted for an amendment to permit Amtrak passengers to transport guns in checked baggage and for an amendment to allow individuals to possess firearms in the national parks in 2009.

Our ruling

Featured Fact-check

The NRA said that "Bill Nelson voted for a ban on millions of commonly owned firearms, which included many popular hunting and target rifles."

In 2004, Nelson voted to extend the 1994 assault weapons ban.

Yes, some hunters used the types of firearms that were then banned. But the ban applied to newly manufactured weapons, and gun makers quickly found ways to tweak banned guns to create "after ban" guns. Hunters or sportsmen still had plenty of choices -- literally hundreds since the ban explicitly listed more than 600 weapons used for hunting that remained legal.

We rate this claim False.

Our Sources

National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action, "This November Bill Nelson needs to go,"  Sept. 4, 2012

PolitiFact, "In Wisconsin recall, NRA says Dem challenger Tom Barrett voted to ban deer hunting guns," May 29, 2012

U.S. Senate, S Amendment 2637 to S 1805, March 2, 2004

U.S. Senate, Vote on S 397, July 6, 2005

U.S. Senate, Amendment 2366, Sept. 16, 2009

U.S. Senate, Amendment 1067, May 12, 2009

Government Printing Office, H.R. 3355, Signed into law Sept. 13, 2004

ATF, "Firearms commerce in the United States annual statistical update," 2012

Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, "On Target  The Impact of the 1994 federal assault weapon act," March 2004

Violence Policy Center, "United States of Assault Weapons: Gunmakers evading the Federal Assault Weapons Ban," July 2004

Professor Christopher S. Koper, "An Updated Assessment of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban:  Impacts on Gun Markets and  Gun Violence, 1994-2003 Report to the National Institute of Justice,"  United States Department of Justice, June 2004

Violence Policy Center, "Senate-passed assault weapons  ‘ban’ will do little to keep assault weapons off our streets, Violence Policy Center Warns," March 2, 2004

Palm Beach Post, "Watching the ads," Accessed in Nexis, Aug. 1, 1990

Tampa Bay Times, "Nelson vows to revise gun laws," Accessed in Nexis, May 5, 1990

Miami Herald, "Nelson’s new ammo against Martinez: A 9 1/2 minute AK 47," Accessed in Nexis, May 11, 1990

Tampa Bay Times, "Only a fresh start can end U.S. crime epidemic," Accessed in Nexis, Sept. 9, 1992

Los Angeles Times, "Clinton urges hunters to back assault gun ban," Accessed in Nexis, May 1, 1994

Houston Chronicle, "President implores police to bolster assault gun ban,’’ Accessed in Nexis, May 3, 1994

Tampa Bay Times, "House votes to ban assault weapons," Accessed in Nexis, May 6, 1994

Tampa Bay Times, "Senate candidate defends gun control stance," July 23, 2000

Tampa Bay Times, "Gun control group puts bulls-eye on McCollum," Accessed in Nexis, Sept. 12, 2000

Tampa Bay Times The Buzz Blog, "NRA takes aim at Bill Nelson in new pro-Mack mailer," Sept. 4, 2012

Interview, Daniel Vice, an attorney at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Sept. 19, 2012

Interview, Kristen Rand, Legislative Director for the Violence Policy Center, Sept. 19, 2012

Interview, Christopher S. Koper, an associate professor at George Mason University, Sept. 20, 2012

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